Three-Eyed Men Are Not Complaining: Tommy Hall
Reading time 59 Minutes
Music industry legend BILL BENTLEY gets to the psychedelic heart of the 13th FLOOR ELEVATORS!
It would be hard to predict
Bedouin in tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples the unending
Subtleties of river power
They slip inside this house as they pass by...
It would be hard to predict that in 1966 my own Personal Jesus would enter my life as an electric jug player in an LSD-drenched rock & roll band. In Houston, Texas then, Jesus was big. While we were a little off-road from the hardest core red-dirt Bible belt of America’s deep South, religion did run rampant through Bagdad on the Bayou. Pumped-up preachers blasted through tinny speakers off rooftops, got cranked out of car radios at maximum volumes and were thumped into the hearts of willing listeners all day Sunday. Texas was big, but God was bigger. Sometimes. But once Tommy Hall took his electric jug in a search of a rock band to project a message of eternal otherness and save the world, life would never ever be the same. Rock & roll became my religion of final authority.
The generation of Baby Boomers were the first to live outside the normal constructs of organized churches. We were raised in the 1950s to hide under our school desks when told nuclear bombs were enroute to blow up our world. Once you cower with complete uncertainty that your life is over, it’s impossible to believe again in a God of any shape or size. Those days are done. It is time to throw yourself in the exultation of rock & roll, searching for a belief system that fills in all the creaking crevices of how life should be. God is out, and the big beat is in. From there is when the caravan of searchers started seeking their higher beings in the jungle-ridden sounds of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and beyond. It was only a matter of time before the wisdom of a true believer found the riddle or rock & roll to be one of deeper destiny, and started the first attempts to crack it open for all to find.
Tommy Hall knows. He just knows. He had been able to tap deep down into the infinite neurons of existence and receive a higher wisdom from the brain-shaping powers of LSD while a college student at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1960s. The light came on and the young student did not question its truth. The young man’s life journey had begun.
How Hall got there is a Texas tale never seen before and surely not seen since. He and his band the 13th Floor Elevators were able to bend the brainwaves for those prone to psychedelic notions, offering salvation for all who believe. The quintet brewed an electrifying dose of spiritual spirals meant to offer an unending zap into the most private parts of the human goo. Once partaken, there is no other alternative possible. Life begins with Tommy Hall’s perceptions of inner travels. He found the psychic password, exalted in it and then injected his discoveries directly into the lyrics of rock & roll. Naturally, like a Mobius strip, the trip never ends. The man moved mountains, and still struggles today with that original calling of destiny.
When rock & roll initially entered the national equation, Texas took back seat to no one. In central Texas, wild-eyed mad men like Ray Campi and Roy Head were ripping a page from the Elvis Presley playback and doing their best to disturb as many minds as possible around Austin. In Houston, African-American heroes like Big Mama Thornton and Bobby “Blue” Bland were turning the local Duke Records operation into Ground Central for soul-searing rhythm & blues. Down San Antonio way, Doug Sahm would ditch high school to make local hit singles for various semi-legitimate record labels, and way up in Lubbock, where the wild wind blew and religion reigned so supreme that alcohol could not be sold there, Buddy Holly was revving up his very own four-eyed revolution to grab a fair share and then some of the youth market.
And let’s not forget Baldemar Huerta, aka Freddie Fender, who became known as El Bebop Kid all along the Texas-Mexican border until the locals couldn’t take any more and Fender eventually ended up in a Louisiana prison. The Nightcaps were detonating things in Dallas with instrumentals beamed in from Mars, while Delbert McClinton’s early bands had Ft. Worth tied up in knots. Last, but not least by any stretch, all the way at the end of the Lone Star state in the West Texas town of El Paso, Bobby Fuller rounded up his future Four to stand up to the establishment. As legend has it, after the law won and the singer went west, Fuller was found dead by asphyxiation in the front seat of his mother’s car on the sad streets of Hollywood. Which is all to say that Tommy Hall had his work cut out for him when he decided to form the finest band ever launched from Texas or anywhere else.
If your limbs begin dissolving
In the water that you tread
All surroundings are evolving
In the stream that clears your head
Find yourself a caravan
Like Noah must have led
And slip inside this house as you pass by...
In the inner circles of expansive student thought at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1960s, a small band of inquisitive pioneers were tearing down the doors of perception with peyote. It was growing plentifully in the Texas valley, so for a few hours car ride from Austin, the ultimate enlightenment was there for the taking. The mescaline synthesized from the peyote cactus accelerated the few dozen seekers in the capital city in a way few could have predicted. The stained-glass windows in all the churches around town became mecca for the visual copping, and those sunsets where it seemed zillions of gallons of orange paint were poured on the sky above the hills became an interplanetary wow.
The pudding was getting thicker and thicker in the nascent hippie clique, centertered around a small group of apartments called the Ghetto, and it sure didn’t look like anyone was coming down again anytime soon. Everything in the normal buttoned-down life of beehive hairdos and fraternity keg parties got questioned, and the answers were invisible to all but those able to read the secret alphabet. Tommy Hall was one of the earliest acolytes of hallucinogens, and became a passionate proselytizer of the wonders of LSD. His mantra wasn’t Dr. Timothy Leary’s of "turn on, tune in, drop out." Rather the UT student fomented "turn on, zoom in and drop again," believing that the secrets of infinity lay deep inside the forehead and can best be accessed by psychedelics.
Hall had been born and raised in Memphis, and as a child had seen rock & roll literally being born in front of him. Sun Records and Elvis Presley got a lot of the attention then, but much of Bluff City felt like it was juiced-up and on the edge of a new civilization, one that clashed violently with the rest of the country’s conformity. Also, maybe just as important for Tommy Hall’s musical future, Memphis was also a city not afraid of the jug.
There were reverberating jug bands playing in the parks, on the streets and inside the nightclubs. Groups like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band were certified local celebrities starting in the 1920s, and are very likely those that planted the seed in the young Hall’s gyrating mind that the jug had a place on the bandstand. After all, washboards had been called into service as a rhythm instrument, so why not the jug? But the jug had never been recruited into a rock & roll line-up before the 13th Floor Elevators, not like that anyway. And it hasn’t really been used that way since. Some might say for good reason, but for all those who heard Hall’s elliptical notes being blown on the jug starting with the Elevators’ first hit, "You’re Gonna Miss Me," in 1965, it felt like they were being called on an excursion of endless fascination. The game was on, and would never be over. Even after the 13th Floor Elevators died a disastrous death in 1968, eternity has a way of evening the score.
Slip inside this house as you pass by
True conception knowing why
Brings even more than meets the eye
Slip inside this house as you pass by...
Above all else, Tommy Hall, Roky Erickson, Stacy Sutherland, John Ike Walton and Bennie Thurman were young Texans who had no fear. When the 13th Floor Elevators first formed, all but Hall had semi-extensive time servicing the musical beast. They had played in central Texas bands like the Spades and the Lingsmen, and from the first could feel the electrical lure of rock & roll: that moment when notes would blend into a beatific beauty beyond description, while the primal beat of wooden sticks smashed against cow skin on the drums conjured up primal memories of man’s earliest expression. There was nothing like rock & roll, which explains why those practicing its impractical applications to modern life were often seen as the post-War generation’s new gurus. They held secrets, and by offering them wrapped in sexed-up songs modeled those secrets in such a physical wrapping that both men and women flipped their brain pans like never before. Salvation was there for the hearing.
Tommy Hall saw all this flipping, and figured if he could harness some of its elemental power the mind of man could be shaped to his calling. He had studied psychology, theology and higher mathematics, and saw within all those academic scriptures a path to a brave and brand new world. While it was impossible to describe the actual dynamics of how LSD affected the mind and body, Tommy Hall surely felt he could find a way to paint a picture the massive explosion of baby boomers could grok. This became his mandate, and in 1965 he began his mission. The reflections in his eyes shone like an endless pool of God’s own wonder.
When taken under positive conditions, an LSD trip begins as a tingle beamed in from just outside the earth’s atmosphere. It is accompanied by shudders of ecstatic bliss, like the final secret of life has been shared, and though it can’t be transmitted by language it is felt throughout the body’s deepest wiring. Soon the brain is conquered by such consequential force there is no way to resist. Outer shapes shift into often unrecognizable patterns, like gorgeous glass panes dancing with each other in exquisite colors and formless masses. Sounds are amplified beyond understanding, and a bumble bee becomes a jet airliner while huge white clouds start spelling out words of philosophical import. Suddenly, all everyday thoughts of cause-and-effect become a thing of the past, and the only thing left to contemplate from above is the word "now." The past and the future disappear in the blink of an eyelid and the smile of a face, and the final feeling telegraphed to the heart is "yes." That rush of events is what Tommy Hall knew he had to telescope into the lyrics he was writing, and with Roky Erickson and Stacy Sutherland’s help on guitars surely the world’s youth population would snap to the fact that earth was now a place of possible emotional nirvana. How could anyone miss the obvious?
In this dark we call creation
We can be and feel and know
From an effort-comfort station
That’s surviving on the go
There’s infinite survival in
The high baptismal glow
Just slip inside this house as you pass by...
Once the group had eight original songs, they added three by Austin friend and fellow psychedelic traveler Powell St. John for their debut album titled The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. St. John had previously joined with Janis Joplin and Lanny Wiggins to form the Waller Creek Boys in 1962, but were short-lived in the growing Austin boho cavalcade. St. John and Joplin eventually followed the yellow brick road to California, leaving Tommy Hall and company to make their stand for mind-expanding rock & roll without them.
The Elevators recorded that first album in 1966, a clashing sound juxtaposed with hard edges sitting right next to visions of overwhelming ecstasy. It was designed to be listened to both on and off LSD, and used as a musical mantra for exploring an alternative universe the band was committed to inhabiting. No other group on the planet made their goal so specific. Consider these liner notes penned by Tommy Hall on the back cover:
"Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups–Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work, etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety. Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view (that is, his own basic relation with the outside world which determines how he stores his information). He then can restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and problems, therefore approaching them more sanely. It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album." The 13th Floor Elevators had laid down their gauntlet.
There is no season when you are grown
You are always risen from the seeds you’ve sown
There is no reason to rise alone
Other stories given have sages of their own...
What Hall, along with the Elevators, was saying is that it was time to blow apart all the previous constraints of how humans think and start with a brand new system of organization. Consider that the other bands in 1966 included forward-thinking outfits like the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and others. But no one was coming out and talking about the very bedrock of consciousness like Hall. Immediately many listeners signed up for the coming revolution in intelligence the 13th Floor Elevators stood for. It would be a bloody battle against the counterculture and the American establishment, and the kind of courage it took to take on the fight would show the band to be at the farthermost barricades of critical thinking. It also came close to getting most of them killed, and all of them locked up for drug possession.
Onstage, though, the 13th Floor Elevators possessed an otherworldly ability to deliver their message like salvation fighters, complete with electric guitars, crashing drums and, yes, the throbbing jug of Tommy Hall playing a music of the spheres which would never be duplicated. In fact, no other band ever even came close, because none attempted to. They left this fertile ground for consciousness expansion to the five men from Texas. Walking onstage first, the tall and intense drummer John Ike Walton made sure his drums were locked down tight, because the way he played them was like driving a train of horses through a hurricane. Bassist Bennie Thurman was somewhat distract, possibly from the methedrine he was using to chase his visions with alarming speed. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland, nicknamed "the dark angel," seemed in his own world, serious to the point where he projected a brooding knowledge of possible doom, at the same time his chords reached to the heavens. Roky Erickson was all cherubic beauty and wild-eyed innocence, a teenager when the band found their strongest foundation. His shivering screams would transport listeners to the world where Erickson seemed to live. And Tommy Hall obviously had the roadmap where the Elevators were going to go, even with a mindful of LSD and enough schematic patterns racing through his churning mind. This was not just a rock & roll band. It was a messianic gathering of true believers.
Live where your heart can be given
And your life starts to unfold
In the forms you envision in this dream that’s ages old
On the river layer
Is the only sayer
You receive all you can hold
Like you’ve been told...
This is the only known interview from 1967 with Tommy Hall. It was conducted for the short-lived Mother magazine by publisher Larry Sepulveda and writer Cal Stanley at the downtown Houston office of the band’s record label International Artists. Roky Erickson was present but apparently uncommunicative.
Cal Stanley: Who picked the new album title Easter Everywhere?
Tommy Hall: Well, I did.
CS: Any particular reason for it?
TH: It comes from the idea of Christ consciousness. And realizing that you can be born again; that you can constantly change and be reformed into a better and better person. It’s like the progressive perfection and
Easter Everywhere is the combination or culmination of this idea as echoed in the public. It’s like everywhere is snapping to this; that there is a middle ground between the Eastern trip and the Western trip and that is by learning to use your emotion and realizing what emotion is and why it is there and how to control it from a pleasure point of view, so that you don’t get hung up in a down place. It’s just the idea of rising from the dead all over, everywhere.
CS: How did you develop your particular sound, the jug particularly?
TH: We just wanted to make a music that could show a groovy place to people. So, we tried to get together at as groovy a place as we could that had as many exposures, views, or photos of the different side of the groovy place. A place that was evolving which you could come up from, all the time. Each of us tried to put his concept of that place and the total sum of it into our music...The words are states of mind and the music is the emotion you feel within that state of mind.
Larry Sepulveda: Several months ago on the cover of Life magazine, a poster advertising your appearance at the Avalon Ballroom was featured with many other posters. What exactly took the Elevators out to the West Coast the early part of the year?
TH: Because we were a band that represented states of mind.
LS: As far as psychedelic music, whatever that connotes, the Elevators were at the beginning of this movement as much as anybody.
TH: Like we were the first group to advertise as psychedelic. We advertised as psychedelic and two weeks later the Grateful Dead played their first gig and they advertised as psychedelic.
Everyday’s another dawning
Give the morning winds a chance
Always catch your thunder yawning
Lift your mind into the dance
Sweep the shadows from your awning
Shrink the four-fold circumstance
That lies outside His house
Don’t pass it by...
LS: What were your impressions when you originally arrived in San Francisco?
TH: It was a gas...(laughter)...It was just beautiful.
LS: Right now it seems most of the people that are there have turned into vegetables or...
TH: No, not necessarily. It’s like all the groovy people have left and are just doing their thing. When it first started out everyone said, "Hey, there are groovy people out there." So, everybody comes and they couldn’t help what happened. Like they were all in different stages of evolution and the groovy people stayed together, so they could continue their thing.
LS: I’ve heard that The Dead have moved to New Mexico which is a sign that things are scattering out. There’s not anything in San Francisco that you could a whole now, is there?
TH: In any scene, you have to make your own scene. If you want to evolve you have to do it yourself. A certain amount is done for you but if you want to evolve faster you have to work. You have to go out there and meet the people and sift through everybody and get finer and finer until you have got a nice scene and it’s hard because there are so many people out there doing the same thing.
CS: How do you think your music stands in relation to the current music scene?
TH: We’re just doing a different thing. Right now as our playing live gets better and better, well, like we’re approaching it from a different view. We’re approaching it from an emotional viewpoint rather than a musical one. As our music develops, we, as a group, develop emotion together.
CS: It takes a while to develop this group thinking, doesn’t it?
TH: That’s true. It would be hard to compare us with anybody else because we’re concentrating our thing on designing geometric states of mind. I think Dylan is doing the same thing. We’re developing our music along the same lines. No, not the same lines but in the same way.
Higher worlds that you uncover
Light the path you want to roam
You compare there and discover
You won’t need a shell of fame
Twice born Gypsies care and keep
The nowhere of their former home
They slip inside this house as you pass by...
LS: Exactly where was (your album) distributed and where did it sell?
TH: Well, it’s like we’re putting out psychedelic music and we like to feel that it really is psychedelic. We have had a hard time selling in places where they don’t understand psychedelic music. They don’t know what to listen for. The psychedelic scene is spreading very fast but then we were sort of caught because people just weren’t there when we were. The Doors and Jimi Hendrix are beginning to sell now and I think the market is changing in a good way as far as psychedelic music.
LS: That’s why I have faith in the Elevators eventually making it nationally because you are sincere about what you are doing and did not jump on the bandwagon to capitalize on a trend.
TH: What the other groups did was to just play the musical side of it. But things are different. This is not just music anymore. These people were playing it from this standpoint; they were just imitating the music.
CS: Throughout your music, do you feel that you have one message or theme you are trying to convey?
TH: It’s like we’re all humans who have reached the point here if we all just give each other ideas, everyone will be able to come up. We’re trying to work out the grooviest ideas we can. It’s looking at phonograph records as a new book and a new kind of feedback man is giving himself. It’s like man is talking to himself. Somebody can listen to a phonograph record and go to a groovy place.
CS: Like classical music, it’s an emotional experience and from this standpoint your music is along the same lines. Like when some people hear this music, all they hear is noise or abstractions and that’s all they hear.
TH: Man has the power to identify with anything. If you want to turn yourself into a Coke bottle you can, and it’s much easier on psychedelics. So, man in the future is going to be sitting in front of one of these albums, not necessarily ours, and the album will do a thing to him that would be like music and would not normally be expected. It would make him totally dissociate his actual ever-continuing self from his perishable egg-shell earth presence and he would go to a completely different world. And the more he does that, the more he can learn about the world of immortality which is just a feeling. That’s what we’re trying to play in our music, the immortal theme, because it’s like Christ said, "We’re already immortal from in front." It’s just knowing that feeling or mood that is what everyone is trying to put down on record for man to remember.
Slip inside this house as you pass by
You think you can’t you wish you could
I know you can I wish you would
Slip inside this house as you pass by...
In 1967 the harsh reality of Texas law enforcement agents were intent on tearing the 13th Floor Elevators apart. Various arrests and constant surveillance made sure any sense of freedom the group needed would not be there. While their second album, Easter Everywhere, felt like a gorgeous gathering of hope and knowledge. The opening songs, "Slip Inside This House," still stands as an unmatched intimation of life being lived the highest plane possible. But in the end it would end up being the being of their goodbye letter to the world. A new rhythm section had joined the group, and Tommy Hall’s progressive philosophical projections even veered into the afterlife on the closing song "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)," but an impossible sustainability also became obvious. By the beginning of 1968, in so many ways, the 13th Floor Elevators were over. A so-called "live" album and another studio album, Bull of the Woods, lay ahead, but it would be one made mostly without Roky Erickson. His major contribution to the final release would be the song "May the Circle Remain Unbroken," a ghostly meditation on a vanishing wish, with the title words repeated over and over riding on a circular melody and electronic pulses. For those in the Elevators caravan, it felt like that world was ending. Now it was up to each of us to take the lessons learned and venture into the future committed to living by the tenets of Tommy Hall.
Four and twenty birds of Maya
Baked into an atom you
Polarized into existence
Magnet heart from red to blue
To such extent the realm of darkness
Within the picture it seems true
Slip inside this house and then decide...
When I first went looking for Tommy Hall in 1988, following my production of the Roky Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, it was a cold trail in San Francisco. There had been sightings in the past twenty years, but nothing that led me to his door. Finally, fellow Texan Chet Helms, who had helped create the Avalon Ballroom in 1966 and was a communications wizard among all the relocated Texans in the Bay Area, told me to go to a government-assisted hotel in the Tenderloin district and ask the front desk for Hall. When I did, it felt like a semi-controlled mental hospital, with a pack of street hustlers stalking the front of the building. I was told to go upstairs and knock on Hall’s apartment. "Hello," he answered with a smile, asking if I was from the Japanese government.
All your lightening waits inside you
Travel it along your spine
Seven stars receive your visit
Seven seals remain divine
Seven churches filled with spirit
Treasure from the angels’ mine
Just slip inside this house as you pass by...
When I had convinced Tommy Hall I wanted to re-enter the world of his wisdom, he invited me to take a walk and then sat down to talk. So much was revealed about him, which included weekly LSD doses on Fridays and an ever-present study of ways for humans to live beyond the physical sphere, that I left the city that day feeling like it was 1966 and the foibles and fears of the past twenty-plus years had been washed away. Hall still had the glow, and was capable of sharing it in a way that no other musician I had ever heard possessed. He would talk with his eyes closed, traveling all the way inside his own being, while rocking back and forth so slightly it was hard to see. But it was there. In fact, Tommy Hall was all there, and the world seemed like a safer place knowing his mind still lived among us.
A friendship began that always feels like a fantastical gift from another dimension. When we talk, I hear the voice of someone who has never quit studying the most inspired versions of our normal selves, trying to take them and spin them into a new creation. As unrealistic as this may sound, Tommy Hall has taught me that life is about believing in the possibilities of otherness. There is no reason not to, as the man from Texas via Tennessee and before that the cosmos beyond explains. It’s all in the patterns to be studied and discovered.
Slip inside this house as you pass by
The space you make has your own laws
No longer human gods are cause
The center of this house will never die...
Hall is still ensconced in the same apartment in the Tenderloin today. The streets have actually gotten stranger, a controlled mayhem of the mad and the needy pitched in an unending energy of intrusion. But he has found a way to live above it, sending his hardened physical reality into a place that does not intrude. It is his life’s work, and the philosopher will not be distracted.
Bill Bentley: How have you arrived at your present philosophy?
Tommy Hall: You have to take all the different concepts and then find a middle. But I have to withhold certain information for my own distribution. I need to patch in to give you a general listing of the universal forms, but not the magic part, right? See, I have to be able to maneuver around the world. It’s just a position I’m in. I’ve got that chariot, and I’ve to be able to drive it.
BB: Is there are basic tenet you started with?
TH: I want to stress a book by Alfred Korzybski, published in 1933, titled Science and Sanity, which is general semantics, and should be fundamental reading for Americans, because it sets you up for the pyramid inside your mind. Your mind is a funneling of different conceptual levels and you have to understand that so you can build on it within your mind. You have to understand that you will be somewhere. One of Korzybski’s basic tenents says "the map is not the territory." The mind is so much more vast than just being a map of knowledge.
BB: These are all concepts?
TH: Yes, it’s like a yoga; different bracketing of informations or universal structures that the mind derives as interior structures, or wave-bracketing of your cerebral system. What man is deriving is the universal, multi-dimensional design mathematics.
There is no season when you are grown
You are always risen from the seeds you’ve sown
There is no reason to rise alone
Other stories given have sages of their own...
BB: How did you start thinking about this?
TH: You had the psychedelic revolution. So then, quite frankly, I read Korzybski when I first started out on the more, uh, higher type of let’s say a chemical bond. That allowed me to realize I could torque my perception–or gain advantage over my perceptioning–and gain access to the universal natures. I was able to get to the level where these were curve-spatial concepts. I was processing curve-spatial natures that matter had. This is a multi-dimensional mathematics, or the mathematics that creates matter. This is matter is a dimensional focusing, all of the existential presence–space and time–that had to be created in some way. Science only handles what takes place after matter was created, but to understand the nature of the substance of matter, you have to understand where it came from. So it’s just one of those things where science had to go that way, and we had to go this other way.
BB: Does science acknowledge the other way?
TH: Yes, they’re open to that. They think on these levels, but they aren’t able to go beyond their perception. Dimensioning works faster than light, so you can’t perceive it happening until you derive the timings of it. At the same time, what you’re getting–what the dimension is giving you–is the same things as how it looks. It’s the machining of the mechanics of that. There are two what I call formalities, or dimenisonings: curve-spatial and hyper-spatial. But the curvilinear dimensioning that you get, it reinforces the material levels because it’s happening so fast that all you’re really getting is outside patterning. For what it does to you, it’ll only confirm that something is out there and it has power. What this is is dynamic mathematics–as we talked about the dimensioning–it’s a type of mathematics that’s dynamic so it has to continually assert itself in regeneration and hierarchical evolution of the mathematical form. The way it’s supered–the way it does that–is from the standpoint of imaging. That’s another important concept. It’s not just that it takes up the space, it takes up the pattern in the space. Just like it’s making a photographic copy of what’s outside the mind. It’s all geometrical and mathematically precise.
BB: What do you mean by imaging?
TH: It’s a process that helps us, by making pictures in our mind. Plus, the whole geometrical process is that of perspective, so just like in your mind you see perspectives outside–like the recognition of somebody’s face or that we’re in San Francisco–there are different levels of perception. The mind came from the evolution of perception–or imaging–and we evolved to get that image to be able to understand what the atoms were doing, their basic dynamical function or mechanical raison d’être.
Drawn from the well of unchanging
And its union nourishes on
In the right rearranging till the last confusion is gone
Water brothers trust in the ultimust
Of the always singing song
They pass along...
BB: Are we going faster now?
TH: The acquisition of information allows it to go really fast with the more we get. But it’s still tight. Until we step outside of this–it’s still going to be tight. It’ll never let up. There are political levels inside of this, too. All it’s done is differentiate it. It’s ceased to focus, soon it’s like a virus that’s been released within the thing. Countries are on different levels and insecure and all that kind of stuff, and as it spreads out, sure we’ll live forever, but they don’t really know what’s going to happen if they don’t keep up with everybody. So they’ll have to play their games and maneuver, but it’ll be safer. There’s still that same intensity that we have to carry our flag as far as we can. It’s just that we don’t know what the hell’s going to go on. They’re not going to attack us once this information comes out, but they’re still not going to do anything differently. We’ll just have to run our thing and distribute it from the standpoint of charity as much as we can and as much as we’re supposed to. At the same time, we’ll make sure that we’re safe and the design is expanding and we’re engineering and controlling it so it’s doesn’t get out of hand.
BB: What are some of the basic philosophical tenets you base this on?
TH: Mainly science. I studied chemical engineering at the University of Texas, then I read a lot.
BB: What took you in that direction?
TH: I was already there. I had a pretty good IQ, and I liked that kind of thing–science fiction–and I went into chemistry. My mother was a nurse and my father was a doctor, so I was given that type of information in that type of environment. We didn’t have a lot of money–well, my father had money, but my mother and father were divorced–so I was on the edge of that whole thing. I was also a rock hound, but I don’t know if you should mention that because you want as few people to be rock hounds as possible. The main thing is, it’s a sport and fun, and it gets you into chemicals and geology.
BB: Where did you grow up?
TH: Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a good town. It has a lot of money and it’s all distributed so it’s beyond itself where everybody lives outside the city in different areas. It’s like an underground town. The main thing that helped me is that the people there are so cool. The good ol’ boy types are just really wiped out. It’s like some kind of focusing of that Hank Williams type of thing but into a more standup level. It’s beyond workers; more like everybody’s on top of it. They’re sitting on top, so alcohol doesn’t degrade them as much, there’s a big angle on the whole thing. I went hunting and fishing, so it was a really great environment. It’s just the perfect area of Memphis, right in the middle so you can go to a bunch of place, the woods and all kinds of stuff.
BB: What took you to Austin?
TH: My father practiced medicine in Lubbock, so he paid taxes in Texas and I could have gone to the University of Tennessee, too, but I chose Texas because I’d gone there in the summer and I’d liked how it was, the flavor of the place and the style and where the people were at. It was a refreshing kind of thing. It turned out really nice because I got in with Janis Joplin and that group of people in the Ghetto (a student apartment area). This was in the early ’60s, and these people were like a network of early hippies. Then I also studied psychology, so I hooked up with a different set at the University. It was like a higher level of psychedelics where you were into what you could think and the ideas that you could get rather than just getting off or escaping. It was really high, because it was a thing you were doing that got you off.
BB: What was the 13th Floor Elevators’ contribution to that scene?
TH: We authenticated rock & roll. I knew a lot of people from a lot of scenes: English majors, linguistic guys, art people. Austin’s a small town, so all the people in all the scenes–all the major heads–they all went to parties together. We got into the art films and existentialism, and you just knew you were at a place where you could advance. We could do something since we had this psychedelic tool where we could make a leap. It was really easy. The more advanced minds, we would go up on a bluff and rap about what we were seeing. I could just see things. I’d get ideas, barely at first, but then they’d start growing. I knew I could move ahead. Then the band assembled and there was the feedback of writing words. You start doing that and you start getting more ideas.
BB: These were the songs you were writing with the Elevators?
TH: Yes, but to me, it was information. As you got more sophisticated, it became more of what you’d call poetry. There was a whiff of ego, like, "Wow, I can actually put something in print." It focused you, and you kept on working along that line.
BB: It seemed then that people actively followed your ideas in the songs of the Elevators.
TH: Well, it’s because we figured out what it was as far as the psychedelic side of things and what that was, where that would lead. I was given enough leeway because of the whole processing that I had gone through–the information that the universe and our culture had given me–it allowed me to make a round sweep so it would show that this wasn’t some wacky thing. That a human being could make all those understandings and a complete whole of everything, proving that we were safe and that we could trust this. It was a whole area of exposure.
BB: The songs were showing people something that had never been shown in music.
TH: That was part of the whole thing. When rock & roll was happening and the music was coming on, it would piss you off that people would write really dumb lyrics. You had Timothy Leary and the psychedelic concept and what he was showing, the beginning of that, and people didn’t follow it. They just come out with the same old type of songs, so you’d think, "Hey, you guys, talk about this. This is what we want to hear about." It was really more of a brother-to-brother type of thing, like, "Let’s get off it and use this because it’s a trip and we can keep this going to evolve and get somewhere instead of just going around in circles." You’re trying to get off, and there’d be a few things like "Please Crawl Out Your Window," but not enough. You needed poetry that went to certain mystical levels that were stimulating to the mind.
One-eyed men aren’t really reigning
They just march in place until
Two-eyed men with mystery training
Finally feel the power fill
Three-eyed men are not complaining
They can yoyo where they will
They slip inside this house as you pass by...
BB: What happened to that music scene?
TH: The English took over everything. They were more into this soap opera of psychedelics, so they wrote a lot about that. We’re more into what it is. You have to understand the genetic setting on rock & roll. You see, I wasn’t like a rock & roll type, really, so I just sprang into it. But the English, they were in a position where they’re just musicians and it’s really hard to that type of person to think on Einstein. They just hit a place and spin right out.
BB: How did the pursuit affect you?
TH: It’s a long trek. You can think just about anything, and it gets you high, but some might lead to a dead end. So it can fool you, too, and you think, "This is impossible." Unless you’ve seen real patterns, you don’t have any backing. You’re too unsure to devote yourself to it. But looking at it and trying to get it to do something and get a center of it, that’s called contemplation. You can sit and look at it and try to get higher, but you might just see plastic and it’ll get really thick and all these levels can get you off of it, too, but you just can’t go that way. That’s not the way. We know what we’re doing though. It gives me enough reward and reputation, and room inside of it to do what I have to do to get it down. It’s like a feedback as far as, "Here’s what’s happening, get it if you can." I think everybody probably knew that I’d do it, and that’s why they have done an awful lot. You have to work really hard. It’s been over fifty years and there’s been a few blind alleys.
BB: How do you keep your spirit up?
TH: You always get rewarded as long as you’re moving ahead and seeing things in it. What we’re all trying to do is to not die inside this. We discovered that it is a hyper-spatial effect, that the universe is in that, and then because of certain holinesses that it has that we call God, we will be rewarded in the context we’re doing this in. Since we discovered this, it shouldn’t kill us because of the inspiration to our lives and the relationship it has to our lives. Mainly, because you have to devote everything to it, so it’s like a holy pursuit and it will pay you off as you obey all the rules. It works that way. It totally gets you off besides being a human being, because it allows you to be a thinker, and see that we’ve accomplished something with our thoughts.
BB: What is the status now of all your work?
TH: I have all the design and I’m still going inside of it and getting the details right. It’s really going to be spectacular because it gives us total access to everything. The main thing is when you’re doing your mental work, you achieve a pattern of manipulation. Then the next day, you have to be able to reactivate that so you’re totally inside it and able to follow the wave-action, producing perceptually different levels that you know are there. I almost have that, and it’s a separation you’re able to make consciously. Very soon I’ll be able to achieve it daily. And it will be very far out.
Tommy Hall sits in the dark in his room. A thousand self-recorded cassette tapes and videos line the walls. But now there is no sound. Somehow it cannot penetrate his walls, though it is surely pulsing outside at peak volume. He has made sure his theoretical musings have been spoken clearly, and it is time for him to contemplate the next step he will take. Like the millions and millions he’s taken since his first in Memphis, Tennessee, they will be directed toward a place we cannot see, but Hall surely can. It is a place he knows is there. And he will be going whether we do or not.
In 2015 singer-songwriter Ty Segall met with Tommy Hall to talk about both this and other worlds for a California music magazine. He asked Hall many questions about the 13th Floor Elevators, clearly a believer in their music and so much more, and ended the interview with the question about the band’s timeless influence, "What do you think about other bands that are playing this kind of music now?"
Surely without a moment’s hesitation, Tommy Hall, an explorer of vistas other humans hope to reach, answered in a way that still makes my heart race and soul smile. Hall said, for now and forever, "There aren’t any other bands playing this kind of music."
Don’t pass it by...
THE BENTLEY ELEVATOR INTERVIEW TAPES
The Bentley Elevator Interview Tapes
For the past 50 years, I wanted to write a book about the 13th Floor Elevators. It started in 1969. Three years earlier in Houston, the band had plugged me into the cosmos with their psychedelic songs. Then, when they were falling apart in ’69 I became obsessed that their story must be told. That book fervor continued all the way into the 1990s. If only the world knew what the band had done, surely people would understand why their timeless creations still matter. Finally, I got a contract from a small, independent publisher, and started work on interviewing anyone and everyone I could find to talk about the band. Whether they were in it or just in on it.
My first interview for the book was in 1989 with singer Roky Erickson, which is a logical place to begin. I had interviewed him in 1975 shortly after he was released from Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Texas, which is where Erickson had explained to me once and for all that “rock & roll is as commercial as ants.” Right on. In ’89 I had just finished producing a tribute album for Erickson titled Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye. The day we spoke then in a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Erickson asked if he put his spoon in the hot sauce on the table would the television playing in the corner begin broadcasting in Spanish. Of course, I said. Why not?
And then I quickly went to San Francisco to interview bandleader/lyricist/jug player Tommy Hall. He informed me IBM would shortly be publishing his book about eternal life. A month later I traveled to speak with the Elevators’ producer/label-chief Lelan Rogers in Nashville, who told me manager Michael Jeffery had called him in 1966 to see if the band wanted to move to London along with a “colored guitar player from Seattle” and conquer the world from there. The guitarist was, of course, Jimi Hendrix. But Tommy Hall told Jeffery no thanks, because “we manage ourselves.”
Then there was the band’s original tour manager Sandy Lockett, who went with the Elevators on their first California trip in August 1966 to play the Fillmore Auditorium, and stayed there with them for four months. I also found attorney Gordon Bynum at his law office in Houston. Bynum had produced the Elevators’ first single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,"” for his own Contact Records, which was shortly leased to Rogers’ International Artists label to start the 13th Floor Elevators saga in earnest. Along the way I spent time talking with Chet Helms, a pioneering Austin hippie who moved to San Francisco early, started the Avalon Ballroom in ’66 with his communal force the Family Dog, and briefly managed Big Brother & the Holding Company. Helms quickly saw the Big Brother needed a front person, and sent friend Travis Rivers to return to Austin and bring Joplin back. Joplin and the Elevators had been talking about her joining them, but the San Francisco invitation was too good to ignore. It worked, too. And one of the most fascinating interviews was with Clementine Hall, Tommy Hall’s wife who traveled to San Francisco with the band in ’66 and stayed there when her husband and the group had to return to Texas to record their first album in Dallas. She not only co-wrote two songs for the Elevators, she also sang on one, “I Had to Tell You,” for the monumental Easter Everywhere album.
And that was just the beginning of my interview-obsession, which led me on twists and turns that still thrill me just thinking about them. I interviewed everyone still alive I could find that had a role in the 13th Floor Elevators’ journey into the unknown. Unfortunately, I never got around to listening to the tapes or writing the book. My job as a publicist at Warner Bros. Records took up almost all of my time and attention during those years, and while it’s fun interviewing people it is a dreadful task transcribing hours and hours of tapes. So I never did. My publisher was most gracious when I put them off about the book, and they eventually found another writer, Paul Drummond, to pen the tome of this sacred band. His excellent history, Eye Mind, was published in 2007 for the Process Media imprint. And my spiritual obsession with the 13th Floor Elevators continues. If it’s true, as Tommy Hall tells me, that in one form or another we will live forever, I will gladly stay the course reveling in the glow of that handful of Texans and one Tennessean who taught me where the pyramid really does meet the eye. And that three-eyed men are not complaining.
Listen to the 13th Floor Elevators Albums
Listen to the 13th Floor Elevators Albums
Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
1. You're Gonna Miss Me
2. Roller Coaster
3. Splash 1
5. Don’t Fall Down
6. Fire Engine
7. Through the Rhythm
8. You Don't Know
9. Kingdom of Heaven
10. Monkey Island
11. Tried to Hide
1. Slip Inside this House
2. Slide Machine
3. She Lives in a Time of Her Own
4. Nobody to Love
5. Baby Blue
9. Had to Tell You
10. Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)
Bull of the Woods
1. Livin On
2. Barnyard Blues
3. Til Then
4. Never Another
5. Rose and the Thorn
6. Down the River
7. Scarlet and Gold
8. Street Song
9. Dr. Doom
10. With You
11. May The Circle Remain Unbroken
Live at Avalon Ballroom
1.You Don’t Know
Thanks to Natalia Wisdom and Peter Conheim
"Slip Inside This House" lyric by Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson. Mother magazine interview courtesy of Larry Sepulvado.
Bill Bentley was born in Houston, Texas in 1950 and first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins playing on Dowling Street there when he was eight years-old. He has been a drummer, hospital orderly, short-order cook, writer, record store clerk, Deputy Constable, record label publicist, concert promoter, music producer and A&R director. Bentley’s book Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen was published in 2017. He presently works at Neil Young Archives and is co-producing a film on a mysterious Texas singer-songwriter.